History | Culture | Ancestry
Scotland has not always had the most harmonious relationship with religion. Like most of Europe, we’ve had our fair share of civil wars and internal strife based on ‘differing opinions’ of theological matters. Some would lead you to believe that this is an issue particular to the West of Scotland, where the idiocy of religious bigotry lingered on longer than elsewhere. Of course it is entirely disingenuous to suggest this unique origin and you only need to look at the unbelievably cruel and devastating wars of religion that took place in Germany, France and Ireland to realise that some of our religious problems, although terrible in their own right, were mild when compared with an event like the Thirty Years War.
That is not to say that we didn’t have our own shameful moments and a notable example is the anti-Catholic riots that took place in Greenock during the 1850s. The riots were instigated by John Sayers Orr, a religious fanatic, who roused the inhabitants of Greenock into such a frenzy that the army, together with a detachment of marines, were needed to end the disturbances.
John Sayers Orr was born in British Guiana in the early 1800s, variously described as a ‘mulatto’ or ‘creole’, his father was a wealthy plantation owner from Greenock and his mother was of African descent. Orr embarked on a career as a fanatical anti-Catholic preacher and he travelled widely, invariably inciting riots in the United States, Scotland, England and Guiana. He later became known by the nickname of ‘The Angel Gabriel’ because he used a trumpet to attract crowds to his eccentric preaching.
Orr quickly built his infamous reputation by creating disturbances in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine and New York. In 1855 he travelled across the Atlantic and found himself in Greenock. Soon after his arrival, Orr let the word spread that he planned to preach from the steps of the customs house and by the end of the day a large crowd had assembled at the steps to hear him speak. However, as he began to launch into a tirade against the Pope, the local police ordered him to stop and to leave immediately. Orr proclaimed that he would have his day to preach without the officers and he invited the crowd to follow him to the boundary of the local police jurisdiction at Gourock Road (now the junction of Newark St/Eldon St/Cardwell Rd).
Leaving from the steps of the customs house, Orr and the crowd made their way along Cathcart and Hamilton Street before turning at Argyll Street, then proceeding up Union Street towards the town boundary. It was recorded that as the crowd moved through the town they caused a “most disgraceful disturbance”, encouraged by the speech given by Orr. He was subsequently called upon to defend himself in court and as he stood before the judge he appealed to the spectators in the court, asking if anyone would come forward ‘like a man’ to defend him. Orr called someone by name and a man stepped forward to give a testimony that the court later concluded reinforced the information supplied by the prosecution’s witness. You can almost feel Orr’s regret at having picked that particular man to give a testimony on his behalf.
After a rambling attempt to defend himself, he was charged with 60 days imprisonment and sent to Paisley Prison. As he was being led to jail he yelled to the crowd that he was being imprisoned for nothing more than preaching the gospel. The mob then considered attacking Paisley Prison and freeing Orr, but later attacked St Mary’s Catholic Church on Bearhope Street instead. The disorder got so out of control that marines from the Royal Navy were sent to maintain order. A further body of troops from the 2nd Regiment of Lancashire Militia arrived from Glasgow by train that evening, billeting themselves in the town hall.
Orr’s journey through Scotland attracted considerable media attention for 1855. The Dundee Courier and the Derby Mercury both reported that Orr sued for wrongful imprisonment and was awarded a ‘considerable’ compensation. He is later quoted as graciously stating that the magistrate who sent him to prison was a man who “the almighty would consign to the bottomless pit”. He then left Scotland, travelled to Liverpool where he was less well received, being booed and hissed. He briefly moved back to Scotland before returning to Guiana where, you guessed it, he incited days of rioting which led to widespread destruction and public disorder. After troops were hastily assembled from Barbados, over 100 men were arrested in connection with the disturbance, including Orr, who was sentenced to three years hard labour at a penal settlement. In December 1857 Scottish newspapers reported that Orr had died from dysentery while carrying out his sentence.
Sources vary on the dates and events that surrounded Orr’s visit to Greenock. While it is certain that he visited in 1855, there are also various accounts that show Orr as having been in Greenock during July 1851. It is possible that he was in the town twice and indeed caused civil disorder on both occasions.
Historian Geraldine Vaughan puts forward the interesting theory that while the civil unrest in Greenock was primarily motivated by anti-Catholicism, it was also driven by an anti-elite populism that made Orr’s message so effective all over the world. In Guiana, Orr successfully rallied the Africans of Georgetown against the Portuguese, who he blamed for the hardships being experienced by local Africans. In Scotland the message was also effective because it tapped into a Scottish Covenanting tradition of resisting excessive forms of civil authority. Undoubtedly though much of the unrest was simply rabble rousing caused by a fanatical demagogue and little to do with any deeper motivations.